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Small Asian clothing companies turned to making fabric masks with their unused inventory during the pandemic. Nikki Manahan sews masks at her sewing machine. Photo: courtesy of Manahan

How switch to making face masks saved Asian-American small businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic

  • When Covid-19 hit in 2020, small companies were left with inventory they couldn’t sell, and no income
  • These nimble Asian-run companies turned unused fabric into fashionable and functional face masks – and as demand grew, so did their businesses

Darwin Manahan sat at the head of his dining table, surrounded by a team of friends helping with his events business. To Manahan’s right, his business partner, Pascale, was confirming the final sponsor for the Barbie festival they would be working that weekend.

It was March 3, 2020, in Los Angeles, four days before Manahan’s birthday. His pregnant wife, Nikki, was walking around the flat working on aprons for another business that the couple founded together. It would provide custom aprons for the staff at the festival, enough orders for the month.

Everything was locked in – staff and vendors secured, paperwork signed, equipment bought, and apron fabric on its way.

Half an hour later they got a call that summed up what the rest of the year would feel like for business owners: the coronavirus was sweeping the nation, so the Barbie festival was cancelled.

Darwin and Nikki Manahan and their son. Photo: courtesy of Manahan

The group was in shock. Dizzy and sick to his stomach, Manahan shut his laptop. “Either I can laugh or cry,” he remembers thinking. “I guess I’ll choose the latter and laugh about it because it just seems so unreal.”

The Covid-19 pandemic decimated a year fully booked with events, restaurant openings, and apron orders. “In the span of a weekend, everything disappeared,” he said. “It was an amazing s**t show.”

Why the face mask was the fashion story of 2020

With a baby on the way, he and his wife needed a new income stream, and fast. Then, days before LA issued its stay-at-home order, Manahan’s brother-in-law called from Japan telling them about the country’s shortage of face masks. He suggested the couple use their extra apron fabric to make some.

In 2020, face masks hit the American retail market with unprecedented demand as federal guidelines began declaring masks to be one of the most effective ways to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Around the country, as 800 small businesses closed daily, business owners turned to these face masks as a way to make up for lost sales from mandatory closures, stay-at-home orders, and social-distancing requirements. While some spotted an opportunity to help their communities and generate extra revenue, others relied on mask sales for the survival of their businesses.

Ahyoung Kim Stobar, the founder of Joah Love, marks patterns for masks. Photo: courtesy of Joah Love

Today, many are selling masks and their flagship products, and the lessons in agility, innovation, and perseverance taught by Covid-19 are going to stick around long after the pandemic has ended.

At the start of 2020, Ahyoung Kim Stobar, the founder and designer of the children’s-clothing brand Joah Love, was feeling burned out from wholesale. Her business was doing well, stocked in 300 stores across the US and Canada, but people no longer wanted the middlemen and were going directly to the brands themselves. She asked herself, “How do I jump off this train?”

“It’s a never-ending cycle,” Stobar said. “And after 12 years of doing this, it stopped becoming fun.”

Joah Love’s masks are made from T-shirt fabric. Photo: courtesy of Joah Love

By February, the pandemic had upended global supply chains, manufacturers shut down, and wholesale business plummeted. Stobar bore the brunt of that crash when many of her clients refused to pay for inventory she’d already sent them. Although she knew some were in desperate situations, she suspected others were using global shutdowns as an excuse not to pay.

She poured money from her savings and pension scheme into her company. She noticed how early her parents’ home country of South Korea had accepted masks as necessary protection. When her husband suggested she make and sell cloth masks, she rolled her eyes, thinking of the cultural differences that separate Asia from the US.

“Yeah right, whatever. Nobody will understand cloth masks here,” she said. “The US has a culture of, ‘If it’s going to protect me, I’m going to wear the mask.’ In Asia and other parts of the world, you wear it as a courtesy for other people.”

A collection of masks made by apron brand Manahan. Photo: courtesy of Manahan

The next day, one of her wholesale clients called to tell her he wouldn’t pay her for the US$60,000 in inventory he had in his stores, nor would he ship any of it back. She hung up, holding back tears, and looked at the hundreds of rolls of excess T-shirt fabric in her warehouse. Suddenly her husband’s idea didn’t seem so crazy.

“Either I can liquidate it and sell it for pennies, or I can try that ridiculous idea of making the masks,” she told herself. “As it stands right now, I’m going to lose my company. I have to do something.”

Stobar knew she needed to make masks that Americans could coordinate with their outfits. “You have to make it fashion to make it stick,” she said. It took her a couple of days to get the pattern right, then she and her sample sewer made a few hundred masks and started selling them on March 19, donating one mask for every one sold.

Darwin Manahan recruited friends and family to help make the masks. Photo: courtesy of Manahan

Her first batch sold out in a day, and angry commenters on Instagram condemned her for making profit. It hurt at first because she wasn’t used to the backlash, but then she focused on the positives: she was using her fashion skills to provide essential protection.

Stobar declined to publish specific revenue figures, but she did verify that 80 per cent of her sales in 2020 came from masks, enough to yield a year-over-year increase from 2019 of more than 13 times. Without the masks, Stobar said, she would have had to shut down her business. She said, “Who’s shopping for premium kids’ clothing when you’re scared that you’re going to die from Covid-19?”

Stobar believes she was among the first American entrepreneurs making masks, and if it’s up to her, she’ll be one of the last. “When everyone is done with masks,” she said, “I’ll still be selling them.”

We would be working 12- to 16-hour days, just nonstop. Every day felt like a weird Groundhog Day
Darwin Manahan on keeping up with the demand for masks

As cities shut down and people rushed to buy quarantine essentials, basic mask supplies such as cotton fabric and elastic were hard to come by. Business owners repurposed what they already had.

In LA, Manahan stayed up until 3am watching YouTube videos on how to make masks. He said his first prototype was “garbage”, but with his wife’s help he had a satisfactory design by the next day.

Manahan posted a selfie wearing his first mask on Instagram, announcing that US$1 from every mask sale would go to the Pilipino Workers Centre. DMs and emails poured in. First 13 masks, then 40, then 70. Within five days, he had over 100 orders. He thought to himself, “Oh, wow – this is what an influencer must feel like.”

How face masks became a fashion statement

To keep up with demand, the couple recruited their brother and a cousin. The Manahan living room became an assembly line. A sewing machine took the place of a stocked bar under the TV.

Manahan’s career in the restaurant industry helped streamline the process. “Everyone had a station cutting, binding, sewing, or attaching ear loops. “We would be working 12- to 16-hour days, just nonstop,” he said. “Every day felt like a weird Groundhog Day.”

They kept going full speed until June, when they stepped back to prepare for their son’s July arrival. By August, mask sales dwindled, but they had enough back stock to fill orders for the rest of the year.

The couple sold 4,630 masks in 2020, which made up 82 per cent of sales and more than doubled revenue from 2019. They revamped their e-commerce site and shifted focus back to aprons in October. But until restaurants and events return, they’re still living on the mask money. “We have a small little nest egg that can help us survive,” Manahan said.

For his family and many others, masks meant more than financial relief: they helped Manahan appreciate the small joys in life and set his priorities, like getting closer with his wife during quarantine, turning grocery trips into date nights, and spending time with his newborn son.

“I was in a really bad place,” he said. “But these little cotton things on your face saved me.”